By and large, Jo-Lynn Hunter's midlife crisis is a result a being a trophy wife without children of her own. She had been unhappy for a long time, although in a loving marriage to a handsome, high-flying businessman. But her vainglorious country-club life isn't really what she wants, and she had made a deal with Evan in the beginning that marrying him meant not having children; he didn't want any. With her interior design job recently drying up and with no other focus than being beautiful and sociable for Evan and his circle of friends, Jo-Lynn ultimately feels dissatisfied. There is just something missing.
When Jo-Lynn's Uncle Jim dies, old feelings about family and a sense of home are rekindled. He and Aunt Stella have been like grandparents to Jo-Lynn, their home a safe haven. Their house is brimming with nostalgia, full of memories of a simple life of easy pleasures. It is still filled with family, but Aunt Stella isn't going to stay without Jim --- she has decided to move in with her daughter, Doris. Stella and Doris have a proposition for Jo-Lynn: to renovate the old house into a museum as part of a whole-town renovation begun by investors. A conglomeration of businessmen is planning to tear down abandoned homes across the town and restore any that can be saved. The hope is that these efforts will revive the dying town and bring in young families to rekindle the economy.
Jo-Lynn discovers that her endeavor to restore the home is at odds with someone's plans for it when an intruder breaks in and sets the house on fire. Finishing the project will be a challenge, and restoring it to its original beauty will inevitably require the help of a local expert. The home is worth restoring, and finishing the project may restore other things lost for Jo-Lynn.
THINGS LEFT UNSPOKEN is a story of secrets, family, and the restoration of a house and a life. Chapters alternate between the present-day restoration efforts of Jo-Lynn and the life of her Great-Aunt Stella in her youth. A story of one Southern woman thus becomes the tale of a whole family. The book has a pure Southern flavor to it, with all the charms and troubles of farmers in a small town. It spans from the post-Depression era to the present day.
At the core of the book is an emphasis on simplicity and a naïveté that I would compare to the age-old story LITTLE HOUSE ON THE PRAIRIE. Selflessness, values and devotion to God are subtleties throughout. While this naïveté is a largely positive feature of the story, weak points do materialize when characters stretch credibility at times. In particular, some of the happenings in the home seem implausible, as does the "renovation" of Jo-Lynn. While described as a woman in her late 40s, Jo-Lynn lacks a level of maturity I would expect from a middle-aged woman. She is prone to frequent sobbing and blaming her husband for an unwanted life, and her family fusses over her continually as if she were a troubled teenager needing guidance. Although her choices certainly change throughout the course of the novel, it seems that her character has not.
The quintessential meaning of the story, however, is what is most important about THINGS LEFT UNSPOKEN: That is, a legacy of family that will go on and on. Reflections on the essence of home and the family unit are a great achievement that will stay with you. The kinship of this small Southern town, with all its privileges and problems, is easy to connect with. Overtones of a simpler life and the strength of a community tied together through faith and family make this an appealing family saga.
Reviewed by Melanie Smith on June 1, 2009